January 28 was sixty-one years ago that my mama, a girl of seventeen then, grabbed a handful of feather bedding and bore down with a holler on a cold January morning and pushed me out for a breath of good Alabama air. Right there in my maternal grandfather’s house in Cross Roads community, down the road a piece from Millport, and just across the line from Columbus, Mississippi. And, I don’t know what better birthday present a man could have had (unless it’s that I’ve lived to do a blog post in the year twenty-ten) than to get some really good news that day, which I’m about to share.
'Twas born of a misconstrution, as my friend Whitney Cadwell would say. In early November, John Evans (owner of Lemuria Books) and I sat in the Bulldog Grill in Jackson MS waiting on a cheeseburger and over the noise he asked me what I was working on. I told him I was working on a memoir about all the day jobs I'd had in my writer's life (I was a pants folder at Tom & Huck Togs in Columbus MS, that I was lead singer in a band for three years, six nights a week, and a longish list of other day jobs). John didn't hear me say memoir. Damn good idea, he said. Asked if the pieces had to be from living writers. And before I could correct him that I'm very much alive, he said, Because it would be cool if Richard Howorth (mayor of Oxford and owner of Square Books) would write about Larry Brown the fire chief and ex-marine before he was crowned a God of Southern Lit.
I didn't hear anything else John said as my mind cranked up to about a thousand miles an hour, running by ideas like William Gay writing about hanging sheetrock in the hills of Tennessee (William said he'll write about working at the pinball factory), Silas House about delivering the mail on Kentucky backroads, Lee Smith doing hair at the Kroger's, George Singleton driving a garbage truck, Pat Conroy teaching school in the low country, Rick Bragg breaking down truck tires...all the sketches with a heavy writerly twist, how such day jobs informed their lives as writers.
I asked Winston Groom to write about being a soldier under fire in Viet Nam. Matt Teague, native of the Mississippi Delta, to write about never having had a job other than writing (he writes for National Geographic). On and on. Barb Johnson is writing about her thirty years' work as a carpenter in New Orleans before asking at UNO if she could get into a writer's class and then selling her collection to Harper Collins and winning a grant to complete her first novel. Alabama boy and New York Times writer Warren St. John is writing about a summer he spent mowing grass and doing yard maintenance, which he said changed his life.
First, I'll say thank you to all the writers who agreed to throw in on a collection of essays about Southern writers and their day jobs, work they were advised not to give up. Clocking in at the culture factory, as William Gay put it, generally won’t pay the bills.
But then WB Yeats wrote a poem called The Choice, and warned us:
The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story's finished, what's the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse.
So I’m fairly bustin’ to tell you that last Thursday on my birthday we sealed the deal on a home for our anthology, because, otherwise, all our raging would be in the dark.
The news will hit Publishers Lunch with a working title from Howard Bahr’s THE RAILROAD AS ART, the first essay to land in my email inbox, after ten o’clock two nights before Christmas. It’s got steel and feathers in it—time clocks and dreams. And while it’s exemplary of the conceit we want from the pieces—write a nose, not an ear, say—no two noses are alike. I’m thinking now of the philosopher who said show him a man’s nose and from that view he could reconstruct the whole person and all his intellect.
THE RAILROAD AS ART: Southern Writers and Day Jobs, then, will be published by MP Publishing, based in the city of Douglas on the Isle of Man but with an international reach. Our book will come out first in the US, simultaneously as a hardcover and an e-book. It will be published in the UK soon after.
Mark Pearce, our publisher, has a day job himself. He’s an architect and has made a good enough pile of money to found MP Publishing. I met him at BEA in New York in June and took a quick liking to the man, impressed by his intelligence, passion and enthusiasm. He is an eBook entrepreneur. He also loves real books and told me at Commerce café in Greenwich Village how someday he’d find the right book for his initiation into traditional ink and paper publishing. Mark came to Fairhope to see me, and, on a barstool at McSharry’s Irish Pub, he and I agreed THE RAILROAD AS ART is that book. (He’s actually already published two other hardcover books in the UK, and will release my novel, THE POET OF TOLSTOY PARK in hardcover there in 2011.) RAILROAD will lay the tracks—I couldn’t resist—for six other books MP will publish in the US this fall. He’s even going to spend money marketing our book—what a concept!—beginning with having me over to the London Book Fair in April to announce it to the world.
Following is a list of writers who’ll be included in THE RAILROAD AS ART: Southern Writers and Day Jobs
Connie May Fowler
Beth Ann Fennelly
Warren St. John
Jill Conner Browne
Frank Turner Hollon
Richard Howorth on Larry Brown
And I'm waiting to hear back from Tim Gautreaux
This will be the best anthology I’ve ever done, making that comparison against the Stories from the Blue Moon Café series, books truly squeezed from my heart, an idea born in my driveway during a full moon, a blue moon, and on a night when Alabama was underneath a magical meteor shower that went on for hours. And when I say THE RAILROAD AS ART will be a better anthology, it’s a big deal for me.
All the contributors, to a person, "get" our anthology, understand its value as a compendium of contemporary Southern culture, an important view of its art and its workplace. They realize that these essays—memoir sketches, really—collected in one volume will actually be a kind of history of the modern South. Our South, peculiar and particular, between the covers of a good-looking book that we hope all readers will enjoy, and that Southerners will be proud of.
Sign on to my Facebook Fan Page, and I'll keep you posted...